After Friday’s 1-0 friendly win over Drogheda Utd, I caught up with Dundalk FC Chief Operating Officer Martin Connolly to discuss a new sponsorship agreement with John McCabe Motors, the difficulties of hosting games behind closed doors, his hope of having some fans at matches and his thoughts on the league’s return on July 31st.
James Rogers: We’ll start with the good news… the club announced a deal today with John McCabe Motors. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Martin Connolly: Yeah, we’re delighted to be involved with another successful local company and it’s great that John McCabe’s of Nissan have decided to team up with us. We’re looking forward to a successful partnership now between both bodies.
JR: So moving back to the football, this is the third game you’ve run behind closed doors. What are you learning about hosting these games now? It’s a process no doubt.
MC: I’m learning that it’s difficult. I’m learning that I don’t think that I’ll be anybody’s friend at the end of this exercise because it’s very, very difficult. Up until last night we were allowed 200 spectators into the ground and then last night it turned into 200 in total which probably will give us about 100 spectators at games. That’s going to prove very, very difficult. We hope to announce things next week regarding season tickets and streaming and all that sort of thing. That all has to be finalised and hopefully that will ease the pain a wee bit for people. We know that we have very loyal supporters and we want to do everything that we can to get them into the ground but we also have to be safe, keep everybody healthy and do all that within the guidelines and that is going to be very difficult, there’s no two ways about it.
JR: Can you see fans being let in on account of the restricted numbers? I’m sure it’s going to be tight when you factor in TV crews etc for the likes of the first game back against Pat’s?
MC: Listen, there’s no beating around the bush, it’s going to be very difficult but we want to have fans here. What we’ve tried to do is to look at different options and we’ve tried different things but let’s put it in its place… there’s only going to be 200 people allowed into the ground. Between both sets of teams you could be talking 60 or 70 people so realistically you’re not going to have many more than 100 people. We’re still learning and we will get it but you have to look at the likes of the atmosphere in the ground which is poor with only 100 people. We have to make sure that everybody is safe and healthy. That’s the most important thing to us but we will have people in the ground. I just don’t know how many at the moment but it’s going to be small numbers, without doubt.
JR: And how do you do that fairly? Is it a lottery system or something else?
MC: Well, we’re looking at options. We’ve looked at all the other options from a lottery, to alphabetical order and people opting in or out but we’ll sit down now next week to work out how exactly we’re going to do it.
JR: Obviously depending on the game I’m sure the numbers may vary because depending on the game there may be different media demands etc?
MC: Look, this is no disrespect to anybody, but we have 1,600 season ticket holders or there or thereabouts. All of those 1,600 season ticket holders would want to be here to watch the Shamrock Rovers game whereas maybe only half of them might want to watch another club and I don’t want to name any clubs when I say that. That’s where you have the problem but whatever way we decide to do it is not going to suit everybody and we understand that. That’s why the streaming is very important to us and that’s why we experimented with our own streaming before the FAI streaming comes on board and to be fair it was quality and proved very successful. We got great feedback from our supporters and the streaming might be some sort of compensation to people but we also understand that it’s not the real thing.
JR: Obviously the FAI have announced they would be using the GAAGO system but is there a possibility you might do your own streaming?
MC: I don’t believe so but that could change. We’ll have a look at that and see.
JR: Will the season ticket holders have access to the stream whatever format it might be in?
MC: Yes, that’s the plan that all season ticket holders will have access. I understand that there’s an element there and some of them have contacted me to say that they’ve no email addresses but my only answer to that is get an email address and we’ll get the stream to you. The plan is that they will have access to the games though as season ticket holders.
JR: You live locally so you’re obviously dealing with fans every day. They’re just mad for a bit of football aren’t they?
MC: To be fair, and I totally get it, I think people just want a wee bit of normality and we’re trying to do that. It’s not an easy process but we’re a community club and we want to be an integral part of the community and part of that is helping people to get back to some sort of normal. That’s part of the process.
JR: There was a report in The Star during the week about an appeal from the club over the decision to restart the league. Can you tell us where that is at?
MC: We’ve withdrawn the appeal.
JR: So as far as Dundalk are concerned, it’s no secret that this isn’t what the club wanted, but you’re prepared to come back on July 31st and play the 13 remaining league matches?
MC: No, there’s no secret in that. We’d prefer more games and we’d prefer it to be a more normal season but we’re looking forward now to the league starting and getting back to playing football which is what it’s all about.
JR: Have you had any guidance on Europe and how it will work operationally? Obviously it will be behind closed doors no matter what.
MC: Yeah, I’m reading a 31 page booklet on the protocols for Europe and it’s going to be challenging. I’ve a very exciting weekend lined up reading that document and working out how we do it. Even things like testing has to be done two or three days before the games, there’s no supporters at all, you have to enter and exit by different zones etc so it’s going to be a challenge.
JR: Is it true that if you’re drawn away that management and other staff have to travel separately to the players? There were rumours about that.
MC: That depends on the charter. The management can sit in certain areas of the plane depending on the size of the charter. I don’t think it’s designed for the management of the team, moreso the directors and non-footballing staff.
JR: It was this night last year when we were celebrating a shoot-out win in Riga. It’s going to be some difference no matter what happens this year isn’t it?
MC: Yeah, it’s really tough at the moment and there’s no two ways about that but from what I understand we’re not the only ones finding it tough. The country in general is finding it tough but all we hope for is that we can do our very best to try get some normality back into people’s lives.
JR: You set up the Patreon members’ scheme in recent weeks and the sign-ups have been good so far but is there any other ways that people can support the club at the moment?
MC: The Patreon is a big part of it and we hope to unveil other plans and commercial ideas as we go along but we’ll wait and see how things go at the moment because we want to get back playing football first and foremost and we’ll see how it goes then.
JR: Can you be excited about the league?
MC: You know what, that’s a great question. I’m excited at getting back to play football but am I excited about the league? I think everybody knows that a Friday night in Oriel is a special night and when it’s not going to be as full and the atmosphere is not going to be as good it’s slightly different. I want the club and the team to be successful and that’s most important but I think it’s going to be difficult for everybody. It’s going to be a completely different experience for the League of Ireland in general but all we can do is see how it goes. I think the country has a lot to look at too because we’re in a bit of trouble if the numbers continue going the way that they’re going but we’ll see. I guess yeah I’m excited to get back to playing football and getting the league up and running but it’s going to be different.
JR: Brilliant, thanks for your time Martin and best of luck in the days and weeks ahead.
Dundalk FC Chief Operating Officer Martin Connolly says the club is exploring all options at present to ensure they can get back playing as soon as possible.
While the decision on when the season can restart will ultimately lie elsewhere, Connolly says Dundalk’s priority is to get back playing as soon as possible, providing it is safe to do so.
Last Wednesday the FAI met with the National League Executive Committee, of which Connolly is a member, to draw up a roadmap for the return of SSE Airtricity League football at the earliest opportunity and in line with UEFA, Government and HSE guidelines.
They came up with various options, five of which were as follows:
A resumption for the SSE Airtricity League behind closed doors on June 19th with the season to end no later than the end of December, a ‘behind closed doors’ policy to operate as long as HSE Guidelines recommend.
A resumption as planned on June 19th with stadium restrictions in line with HSE Guidelines including ‘behind closed doors’ and reduced capacity at 25% or 50%, the season to run until the end of December.
A resumption in July or August, based on Government advice and HSE guidelines.
A deferral of all National League activity until September with a reduced fixture programme season to run until the end of December.
A resumption of National League football in September with a full fixture programme season to run until the end of February 2021.
While the current return date for the league of June 19th is looking increasingly unlikely, Connolly hinted that it would be Dundalk’s preference to get back on the field at that stage.
“Obviously for us as a club we would prefer if we could get back playing football sooner rather than later but unfortunately it depends on a lot of things that are out of our control.
“Unfortunately what we need to do is going to be dictated to by loads of others from the Government, to the HSE, to public health guidelines, to UEFA, to FIFA and others.
“There are so many things that are out of our hands at the moment and we just have to wait for guidance on it but the problem there is that an awful lot of those groups are waiting for the same sort of guidance and guidelines on how they’re going to do it.”
While some League of Ireland clubs are opposed to the idea of playing behind closed doors or with reduced capacities due to the financial implications of losing gate receipt and other match day revenues, Connolly says streaming games behind closed doors is something that Dundalk would be happy to explore if they had to.
“I’m not in a situation where I want to rule anything in or rule anything out and I agree with the FAI and Gary Owens when he says that we should look at everything.
“I think streaming is possible and I think it would be of great interest to people if there were no other alternatives. People would probably climb to the top of a mountain at the moment to watch a game of football so I think there is an opportunity there to see how it works and I think we would be foolish not to look at that at the moment.
“Every opportunity that we need to look at we should be looking at and that’s exactly what we’re doing at the moment.
“What we’re doing at the moment is we’re gathering data to see the projected losses if you open to an empty stadium, a 50%-filled stadium and a 25%-filled stadium. It’s also being factored in what the estimated cost is then to host those games behind closed doors but we don’t know what the Government or the HSE are going to ask us to have in place in order to play them.
“If they say you can open your doors and have 50% of capacity and say this is what you need to meet that standard then we need to look at the possible earnings from streaming.
“Is it in the club’s interest that we do all those things? At the moment all we’re doing is collecting that sort of data and looking at where any possible funding could come from from doing that.
“I wouldn’t go as far to say that it’s different for Dundalk because we’re financially well off. I’d go as far as to say our business is professional football and so it makes sense that that is what we want to get back to.
“Other clubs within our league are in different places and are part-time etc. I have the utmost respect for the likes of Sligo Rovers, Finn Harps and all these other clubs who depend on fundraising because we were that animal before and I know exactly what it takes and the hard work that goes into it. In a crisis like this, we’re just in a different place than they are,” he said.
One slight concern for Dundalk is the possibility of European matches returning before the domestic league.
“We’re being given options to start our league in September by the FAI but we’re being told in the same conversation that our UEFA game could be at the end of July. How do we do that?,” asked Martin.
“That could mean we play a UEFA game at the end of July but we’re stopped until September and we haven’t played a league game since March. How do you do those things? Then the HSE could say you can’t train because there’s still a ban on training as a group. Where do you play your European games too if there’s a ban on travel? It’s just crazy at the moment.
“Having said that I believe that UEFA’s main concern at the moment is to get the UEFA and domestic competitions complete for 2019/2020. I really think until they get until the final stages of the 2019/2020 competition then they’re not going to worry too much about the 2020/2021 season.
“It’s just such an uncertain time. You look at plans they have in Germany to get back playing and there’s talk about the Premier League going back training etc but the best laid plans could be thrown out the door within an hour of the kick off of a game the way this is going because nobody knows where this is going.
“All we can do is plan, look and investigate and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re looking at a couple of options for all scenarios,” he said.
Dundalk FC hope to release a new ladies range in the coming weeks and months.
Speaking at the weekend Chief Operating Officer Martin Connolly said buying merchandise was the best way to support the club right now if you wished to do so.
“If you want to support the club right now buy a jersey or something like that,” he said.
He also revealed that the club hoped to release more merchandise, including a new ladies range, soon but said the current situation was making that difficult at present.
“The problem at the moment is getting in contact with Umbro and seeing what they have in terms of availability and what they can get done because like everyone else they don’t have full staff in operating at the moment but we have spoken to them about different ranges and stuff like that.
“The ladies range is something that we’ve already been in contact with them about though,” he said.
Dundalk FC Chief Operating Officer Martin Connolly believes the club will continue to pay their employees as normal for the foreseeable future but admits it is worrying times for all staff associated with the Oriel Park outfit as to what the future holds.
With the SSE Airtricity League now suspended until June 19th at best, two clubs – Sligo Rovers and Cork City – have already announced that they will be laying staff off both on and off the field.
So far, only Bohemians have said they will continue to pay their players, albeit with some to-be-agreed adjustments to allow for the fact that the season will now potentially run until December 4th.
Asked by The Argus had any assurances been given from America as to what would happen in relation to wages at Dundalk in light of Sligo Rovers’ announcement last Thursday that they were laying off staff, Martin said: “No, at the moment we’re carrying on as normal.
“It is worrying and concerning when you see anybody lay off staff, particularly Sligo Rovers who have put such great work into their club.
“I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision but they’ve probably made the right decision for the future of their club and I think that’s foremost in anybody’s mind when they make decisions like that.
“Sligo Rovers will come back bigger, stronger and better because they’re a great club and a very important part of our league.”
Despite the hope that all contracts at Oriel Park will be honoured, Martin admitted the current predicament was a bigger challenge for Dundalk FC than the situation the club found itself in eight years ago in 2012 when it nearly went out of business.
“I think it’s a bigger test because I think it affects an awful lot more people.
“I think everybody in our town and our community has been affected by it and we feel for them and that’s why it’s very important that we keep in touch with them via our social media mediums and I think we’ve been very strong over the last week or so in getting the message out that if people need anything at all to contact us and then if we can help them at all we will.
“It affects so many people that it’s a lot more important that we stay together on this.”
Chairman Bill Hulsizer represented the club in last Friday’s meeting where the date of June 19th was determined for a potential re-start of the league but Connolly is also a member of the National League Executive Committee which determined the details of the new proposed revamped league along with the FAI.
He admits the return date for action is “aspirational” but is hopeful it can be achieved.
“I think it’s aspirational but we have to try to set targets,” said Martin.
“I think if you don’t set targets you’re leaving yourself open to more criticism.
“The thinking behind it is that we’re in line with UEFA’s calendar. If UEFA’s calendar goes ahead then why shouldn’t our league go ahead and if it doesn’t go ahead then it’s going to be stopped on Government advice or Government warnings and I don’t think anybody would have a huge complaint about that.”
While cutting the final round of fixtures would make things difficult for Dundalk on and off the pitch with the loss of five home fixtures – including big games against Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians – Connolly said it was far from ideal for anyone.
“That was one of the things that came into my head but you can’t get into a situation where you pick and choose what fixtures you’re going to have or say we’re not happy about that because we have Rovers twice away and Bohs twice away.
“It’s a difficult time but it’s difficult for everyone. I don’t think there are a lot of options and if June 19th doesn’t happen – which would be down to a lot of other factors – then your options reduce another wee bit as well,” he said.
The former Dundalk and Monaghan Utd goalkeeper also said he expects dates for the club’s European matches this July to remain as is for the time being.
“At the moment, from what I can gather, UEFA’s target is to get the 2019/20 calendar finished and then the 2020/21 calendar will look after itself because our Q1 and Q2 game won’t interfere with the Champions League final obviously. They’re different levels.
“I don’t think there has been any thought or negotiations to move them at the moment. That’s not to say they won’t be moved because everything has to be looked at but I would say the plan at the moment is to satisfy Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid and not worry about the likes of Riga, Dundalk and Linfield. I would think that’s the plan at the moment.”
Connolly also revealed that minor works were planned at Oriel Park at present during the current down time.
“The company policy at the moment is that if you can do your work at home then you do it and we’re trying to adhere to that. One or two of us can go into Oriel Park because we have separate offices and we’re not breaking any guidelines or anything like that.
“It does give us a chance to get things done that we may have put on the long finger. A criticism of the League of Ireland clubs is that there is no long-term planning but there’s no long-term planning because you don’t have any time. We generally work week to week so we’ve found that we are now getting different bits and pieces done that we can.
“Going by all the guidelines if we can get any bits and pieces done around the ground, we have been trying to do that. It’s surreal at the moment but we’re still trying to do some bits and pieces to keep some form of normality as well.”
Dundalk FC Chief Operating Officer Martin Connolly believes the current stoppage in the SSE Airtricity League to prevent the spread of COVID-19 could lead to a “doomsday” scenario for some clubs unless they are supported by the Government and UEFA.
All League of Ireland games have been suspended until March 29th at least but the suspicion is that this period could be much longer.
Cork City, Sligo Rovers and Finn Harps are among the clubs who have expressed concern over what a lack of match day revenue could mean for their immediate futures and while Dundalk might be cash rich on the back of their Europa League run of 2016, Connolly admitted the challenge was “massive” for everyone.
“It’s a difficult one for the league but I don’t think our league could function in a behind closed doors scenario,” he said.
“I think the suspension of the league was the best option open to the FAI and everybody else.
“That brings about its challenges too. The likes of Sligo Rovers would depend hugely on finance from a match day. We were in Finn Harps last week and they do half-time draws and raffles and all that sort of stuff and if you haven’t got that then there’s a vital cog gone for you.
“The Taskforce that has been put together is going to work on the finances that are going to be missed within the league and Alex O’Connell, who is the financial director of the FAI at the moment, is going to present them to both Government and UEFA at some stage for some sort of funding support.
“That will be vital between clubs surviving and not surviving, make no mistake about it.
“This could be a doomsday scenario for everybody and it’s very worrying,” said the former goalkeeper, who is a member of the National League Executive Committee.
While Dundalk are the wealthiest club in the country and have the backing of US owners PEAK6, that also means they have one of the biggest budgets both on and off the field. In a best case scenario they will go 54 days between their last home game against Cork City on February 24th and their next scheduled match at Oriel Park on April 17th against Shelbourne.
This highlights the challenge presented to all clubs and while the SSE Airtricity League champions have their budget heavily weighted towards progress in Europe, their Champions League campaign this summer could also now be impacted depending on the outcome of a UEFA meeting on Tuesday.
While the outcome of that conference call will be of huge interest to everyone, Connolly said the most important thing right now was the safety of all players, staff and supporters involved in the league.
“UEFA have a handle on that at the moment and they have a conference call on St Patrick’s Day with all federations.
“All competitions will be looked at from Euro 2020 right through to the European competitions. To be fair, as everyone says and I would agree with it, this is a once-in-a-generation problem and nobody knows what is going to happen.
“Here in Dundalk we were impacted by the Foot and Mouth crisis in 2001 but this is on another level to that. I think from talking to people within the FAI there was only a total of one or two weeks of games affected back then.
“This is on a different level because nobody knows what is going to happen here and how this is going to go. Even from the Government today, I think March 29th could be an optimistic date and that’s just purely from what they’ve been saying today.”
While Dundalk had originally planned to train on Saturday morning this was cancelled late on Friday night. At the time of writing a decision had yet to be made on how to proceed from next week.
Despite this, all club staff have been advised to work from home for the foreseeable future.
“Our policy at the moment is that those who can work at home are to work at home and that’s what we’re doing,” said Connolly.
“We’ve put in a couple of procedures to protect the staff and that’s the most important thing to do.
“The main concern from our owners and the club is the health and safety of everybody and the bigger picture which isn’t just about sport and football. From a business point of view what happens with UEFA is a big decision but it’s not only a big decision for us. It’s a big decision for everybody and the sport in general so we’ll just have to wait and see what they decide.”
Asked was there ways in which fans could support the club through this difficult period, the COO said “not just at the moment” but added that Dundalk were working on a number of things but would also be looking to support the local community as well if they could.
“We will look at all ideas and concepts going forward and we’ll look at any way we can help the community as well but we want all our supporters and staff to stay safe and if we can play a part in achieving that then we will,” said the 51-year-old.